It seemed like a slam-dunk — approving applications for two grants that could lead to the city of Mount Airy receiving $2 million in federal funding for needed water and sewer upgrades in town.
However, that action came only after a lengthy question-and-answer session Thursday night during a city board of commissioners meeting which was dominated by candidates for this year’s municipal election.
As explained by city Community Development Director Martin Collins, two grants of $2 million each are being eyed by Mount Airy to upgrade failing lines in two different areas, but which are in the same general vicinity.
Two separate Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) applications, totaling $2 million each, are being considered by Mount Airy officials. One targets improvements in the West Side section that includes the former Spencer’s Inc. industrial site the city government now owns and is trying to revitalize. The other includes the mostly residential area around Maple and Merritt streets.
The overall community eyed for water and sewer line replacements is bounded on the south by Franklin Street, on the North by Maple Street, on the east by Willow Street and on the west by North South Street.
“In these particular areas, they’re old — they’re starting to have some problems,” Collins said of the utility lines. “These are the ones that have frequent breaks.” He said one catalyst for the grant process was a recent study that showed the city is receiving no revenue for water worth hundreds of thousands of dollars which is being lost to leaks and other problems.
Only one of the $2 million grants can be awarded to the city under the rules, which seemed to create a hint of suspicion in the commissioners’ meeting room Thursday night.
Gail Proffitt, a candidate for the at-large seat on the city council now held by Jim Armbrister, said if seems as though one of the grants favors the former Spencer’s property.
“I do believe it fits in with (redevelopment),” Profitt said of the money sought for the so-called West Side section.
“Both neighborhoods are certainly eligible, they’re certainly worthy,” Collins said of the two areas targeted for upgrades. He pointed out that the West Side segment also includes a public housing development that could benefit.
Bruce Springthorpe, a candidate for North Ward Commissioner Dean Brown’s seat, also questioned whether the utility work would cost the city any money, despite the fact the grant funding would come from a federal source and not Mount Airy taxpayers.
“The city plans to commit up to 10 percent” of the grant total, Collins explained of the local input, “and that’s to cover contingencies.” This would include stone being encountering underground, he said.
Other questions centered on the city’s chances of receiving even one of the grants.
“It’s going to be incredibly competitive,” Collins said of the award process involving a special board, which will be based on a scoring system. One item in Mount Airy’s favor is the income level for residents to be served, with 69.3 percent of the citizens in the overall project area found to be low-and-moderate income individuals based on 2014 data.
The average income among the residents is $29,284.
Collins said recent grant cycles indicate that much of the CDBG funding available to North Carolina has been delegated to the eastern part of the state.
However, there was hope during the meeting that Mount Airy will indeed qualify for one of the $2 million grants.
“It’s a very good opportunity,” Collins said.
The board’s vote to seek the grants was unanimous.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.